“You guys okay?” he asked, attempting to tie a miniature Taiwanese flag to a stick he’d picked up from the side of the road.
“Yeah, we’ll be fine.”
“Great, see you in Wushe!”, L walked away with his usual cheerful swagger. “Remember,” he called back at us. “Suns up, thumbs up.” That was his shortened way of telling us that cheerful hitchhikers were more likely to be picked up.
We stood on the side of the street leading from the mountains to Taroko Gorge for about five minutes before a red van pulled over. Clambering out of it and setting about moving various items around in the back, the driver asked us where we planned on going.
“Wushe,” I said.She turned around with a grin on her face, her moon earrings swinging to and fro. “Well, I’m headed that way, so get in.”
We rode in the car with her for half the day. Conscious of the opportunity at hand, I chose to sit in the front so I could learn more about the person kind enough to pick up three strangers. Unfortunately for her, my sitting in front meant she would be subject to a near endless stream of questions.
Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries in Taiwan when she was born. She’s lived in Taiwan for years, though I can’t remember how many. I know she attended a British school and her father, a preacher, worked with different villages. The family left in ’76 she told us. “We left when it started gettin’ real bad,” she said, referring to the White Terror or the twenty-some year period Taiwan was under martial law. Unfortunately, she didn’t clarify how they became worse. In fact, most think the situation in Taiwan improved following Chiang Kai-Shek’s death in 1975, though one might be inclined to think it could become worse after watching the beginnings of the suppression of the April 5th, 1976 student protests in China. Perhaps they thought the situation in Taiwan would deteriorate after the formation of the World United Formosans for Independence, a group interested in the liberation of Taiwan and, who, in 1976 sent a letter bomb to then governor Shieh Tung-min.
Regardless, the family didn’t feel safe. Her father had been particularly outspoken in the past and now worried his frankness would lead to trouble.
“Y’know they always told my father he could say more because he was a foreigner and, boy, did he take advantage of that– everything they gave him he gave back twice as hard.” Being a rabble-rouser, as she called him, during martial law is not entirely safe, so the family settled in Bangladesh in 1976– this being only five years after Bangladeshi independence. Somehow they felt that would be safer, I guess. “How was that?” I asked her.
Establishing an independent country is difficult on its own, but in the last five years Bangladesh had also endured two cyclones that wiped out half the population. “In Bangladesh there was hardship everywhere,” she paused to lean over and grab an almond snickers from a small cavity on the dashboard. “The main occupation was chipping bricks for roads. The country wasn’t resource rich in stone, so they had to use bricks instead. They threw bricks through the American embassy– and the Russian one when they learned about Afghanistan– they couldn’t throw any stones– there were no stones.” At this point her dog Snowy, who I had scooped into my lap, attempted to inspect the food his perch on my knees. Unsuccessful, he settled for me petting him instead. She smiled and I took that as a sign to continue asking questions about her life there. The people in Bangladesh were very poor, she told us. “They looked like the street dogs I saw in other countries”. She spent a few minutes describing starved people “in generally bad shape” to us before cutting herself off.
“Y’know, Bangladesh wasn’t always like that. My elementary teacher told me they were rich before the British came. They used to tile their roofs in gold.” She told us this all the while driving up winding mountain roads. Here and there she would pull off. “You gotta see this,” she’d say, pulling the brake of the old red van. We’d all jump out, Snowy included, and walk around for a time. While we walked she’d tell us more about Taiwan’s geography and ecology. “Here’s the hiking trail five hundred meters up,” she said pointing across the ravine to a nearly hidden path between the green foilage growing on the side of vertigo mountain. “We played with knives up there once,” she said laughing.I asked if it had any safety features. “Sure, sure, but some people still fall off, you know.” I looked horrified and stepped back. Judging by the way Snowy was attempting to scramble his way back to the car, I wasn’t the only one in the party afraid of heights. We returned to the car and drove for a time, and we talked about Japanese control of Taiwan. “When Japan left to make way for the KMT, my teacher told me she had to get dressed up in her best clothes and go sing for them. She said she remembered the Japanese all lined up, looking clean cut in their uniforms. They thanked them for the performance and were so polite. They did the same thing for the KMT when they arrived and it was totally different. They had holes in their uniforms, they were dirty. Couldn’t even bothered to say hello or thank you, just where’s the food and get out of our way basically.”
We drove more, the sky darkened and clouds settled over the roads.“I think that’s where my mother got her PTSD,” C had told me earlier about Bangladesh in passing. For a while I let that statement go and we talked about other things– how she found her dog, Snowy; how strange she felt living in Kentucky in middle school; her studies of high elevation animals in Taiwan. Eventually I asked her about it. “My experience was very different from my mother’s experience,” she began, “and my brothers were very different from mine. My mother has nightmares– wakes up thinking people are watching her. Y’know, we had to go to a therapist after getting back from Bangladesh, the church wanted to make sure we were mentally sound and all that, and she told him about how people looked at her. I mean, people look everywhere. People look in Taiwan, too– not positively, not negatively– they just do. But there, there it was hostile.” Her mother, she seemed to believe, bore the brunt of the hostility. Sure, she startled when balloons popped, but her mother had once been swarmed by angry men when her father left her alone in the van to check on a ferry. “They didn’t like women being out alone,” she’d explained to us.Meanwhile, she disguised herself as a boy. “That was the only way I could have the run of the town,” she told us.
By the time we’d reached the apex of the mountain we’d talked about education, history and family. She’d shared favorite memories and I’d shared some of mine. Not long after we’d started our descent she pulled over again– we’d done so twice before to walk across suspension bridges and look for the stars, but she seemed particularly excited this time. She’d hoped to see the milky way at some point in the drive and occasionally, after several loud exclamations and some laughing, she’d pull over and tell us to get out. She’d sidle out as fast as she could, untangling Snowy’s leash and bringing him along with us. This time the car, perhaps indignant with the frequent stops, refused to brake. One of my companions pointed it out uncertainly, causing C to glance at it then decisively pull the car into reverse before adopting a carefree smile, laughing and walking to the side of the road. “That oughta stop it,” she’d said to my companion, who was doing his best to look reassured.
Now I know memory has a way of fooling you, and I’m not sure if it was the company, or the experience, or the knowing that I had pushed myself beyond my boundaries, but I remember that sky containing most brilliant collection of stars I’ve ever seen. On the highest peak in Taiwan, above the trees we stared greedily at the planets, and constellations that nested themselves in innumerable stars and breathing in the cold, crisp air, I suddenly felt completely reinvigorated.